Kay's Korner

Mar 1, 2013

Nurturing leadership and understanding

I recently had the pleasure of enjoying a Prime rib dinner with Scott George and J.D Alexander, respectively the incoming and outgoing presidents of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). We were attending the 10th annual Alberta Beef Industry Conference held at the majestic Banff Springs Hotel in the Canadian Rockies.

The conference and trade show is Canada’s largest such event and this year attracted more than 500 people from all over the country and from the U.S. Several of the speakers, including myself, were from the U.S., suggesting the importance the Canadian industry gives to hearing from their neighbors. One thought struck me. How many conferences does one go to here that feature Canadians? Based on what I heard, we could learn from the perspective of producers and industry specialists north of the border.

The conference is unique in that five of Alberta’s most influential beef associations joined together in 2004 to create the event. They included Alberta Auction Markets, Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, Alberta Livestock Dealers and Order Buyers, and the Western Stock Growers Association. This is evidence that the production sectors in Alberta speak to each other far more than they do in the U.S.

I don’t know if Alberta has a group that represents beef processors. But plenty of packer cattle buyers were in attendance, including those who buy for U.S. plants. I had several corridor conversations that suggested that imports of Canadian feeder and slaughter cattle will decline this year from last year because Canadian packers need the cattle to run their plants. Conversely, Alberta cattle feeders will continue to supply cattle to places like Tyson’s Pasco, WA, plant and other plants, especially if the basis between Alberta and U.S. live cattle prices is favorable.

Also addressing the conference was Bill Rupp, president of JBS USA’s beef division. Rupp has made numerous visits to Alberta since JBS took over the management of, and subsequently bought, the former XL Foods beef plant in Brooks, AB, last October. Everyone I spoke to agreed that JBS’ entry into Canada is a real positive. They see JBS as providing long-term stability in the processing sector and competition to Cargill, the other major packer in Canada. They also see JBS helping to diversify Canada’s beef exports far more than XL Foods or the wider industry might have done. Incidentally, the Prime rib we enjoyed came from the Brooks plant and was delicious. My NCBA guests and I agreed that Canadian beef matches U.S. beef in quality.

The conference was also a reminder of how important it is to attend such events to learn about latest trends and issues and to network with people in other sectors (hence the value of this unique gathering). Another important aspect is to reconnect in person with people. I had the pleasure of seeing J.D. for the first time in some years. We were on the National Cattlemen’s Association’s Young Cattlemen’s Conference tour in 1991. I was the media rep that year and the week was both enlightening and extremely enjoyable. Our tour produced several outstanding industry leaders in later years, including J.D.

Hats off to NCBA for continuing to conduct the tour each year. It is the single most important event NC- BA holds to develop industry leadership. Perhaps the packing sector could put together a tour, with a focus on visiting ranches and feedlots, for young management trainees to learn more about the production sector. Understanding how the entire beef chain, from ranch to retail, works is going to be even more critical as cattle numbers decline and the industry struggles to keep beef affordable to as many people as possible.

I was also delighted to chat with Scott, the first dairy farmer to be president of NCBA and its predecessors. This second-generation dairy farmer from Cody, WY, is also (with two brothers) involved in cow/ calf production and they also have the American Breeders Service dealership in Cody. The Georges are also forage producers, raising all the corn silage and earlage and the majority of hay required to feed their beef and dairy herds. So Scott has an ideal background to lead the industry this year as it faces the prospect of more drought and likely concerns about the size of this year’s corn crop.

Many more issues will also occupy his time and that of NCBA. The three of us agreed that the use of beta-agonists in cattle feeding, the ractopamine bans by Russia and China on U.S. meat exports, and Salmonella in beef will all loom large this year. Then there are the issues that appear out of nowhere, like the media furor over lean finely textured beef a year ago. I wish Scott the very best in his tenure as NCBA president, and as few surprises as possible. — Steve Kay

(Steve Kay is Editor/Publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, an industry newsletter published at P.O. Box 2533, Petaluma, CA, 94953; 707/765-1725. Kay’s Korner appears exclusively in WLJ.)